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For some, 40-year-old vocalist Shemekia Copeland might seem out of step with a generation more in tune with hip-hop than the blues. But since her first Grammy nomination at the age of 21, Copeland has been working to push the blues into the 21st century while still respecting its traditions. Tom Casciato recently spoke with Copeland about her past, her music and how she's out to change the world.
The blues has been around as a musical style for some 150 years. And like many art forms, it has its conventions, its patterns and its subject matter. One contemporary artist who's steeped in blues tradition is award-winning vocalist Shemekia Copeland. But she's also a musician with some new ideas about the blues, as NewsHour Weekend's Tom Casciato reports.
Shemekia Copeland might seem at first like an artist out of step with her generation.
I grew up in the middle of Harlem during the hip-hop era. So all my friends were listening to rap music. And that's where a lot of the rappers came of age. Right there in my neighborhood. Kool Moe Dee and Big Daddy Kane.
Big Daddy Kane "Raw": (singing) Here I am R-A-W, a terrorist, here to bring trouble to..
I kind of liked that stuff, but I was mostly in my room listening to old blues records. I was listening to Ruth Brown.
I'm going home on the morning train, I'm going home on the morning train.
(singing) I'm a woman, make love to a crocodile. I'm a woman..
Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald. So I was obsessed with these just voices.
(singing) In a bar down in Texas. In a poor part of town.
It was about second grade when I realized I wasn't like the other children. Because I had this one teacher that hosted a talent day. And she would have all the kids get up and do something in front of the class. The boys would get up and they would rap. And the comedians would do arm-farts. And of course all the girls, the girls would get up and they'd sing pretty love songs. I was watching this. And I'm, well, I can't sing pretty and I don't know how to rap. So what am I gonna do? So I get up there finally toward the end of the year. I built up my courage. And I got up there. And I said, "I'm a woman. I can make love to a crocodile." You know, it was an old Koko Taylor song. And I got myself in a lot of trouble.
My mom had to come had to come to school and explain to the teacher that I was a blues singer. That's all she said. Like that was going to help my cause. I had to get the whole it's not appropriate to sing that in class speech. Although my mom was very proud of me.
Her father had cause to be proud as well. He was the Texas blues star Johnny Copeland. His composition "Ghetto Child" is one Shemekia still sings today.
(singing)Little boy standing on the corner. Somebody please won't you lend a hand.
Actually my first show I ever did out in public was at the Cotton Club. I was about 10 years old. And when my dad saw me sitting in the audience, he started playing this song that he wrote for me called "Stingy." I've never recorded it. But the lyrics are "I got a boy. Sweet as he can be. The only thought he got that I can see is he's too stingy. Stingy with the love for me. And so he started playing that song. And I knew it. I was, like, oh my God, he's gonna make me come up and sing in front of all these people. Oh, Lord, you know. And he did.
Blues fans are glad he did. Because Shemekia Copeland has charted a course pushing the blues toward new ground. Though that wouldn't happen right away.
Your first record seemed to deal with love gone wrong and the things that blues singers have been singing about for a 100 years.
Was that by design? Were you trying to be a traditionalist for lack of a better word?
No, I was just singing about what I knew about at the time. When you're 18-years-old, it's just, you know, your little relationships and loss, you know, the loss of my father and life things.
Johnny Copeland passed away in 1997. He didn't get to see his daughter earn her first Grammy nomination in 2001 at just 21 years old.
And that was the album where you did a duet with Ruth Brown.
And the song was about how all of us men are liars.
You can tell a man is lying if you see him move his lips. Yeah.
Hey Shemekia, I hear you've got yourself a new man.
Yeah Ruth I do.
Well, you don't sound too happy.
Well, I think he's been lying to me.
If he's a man you can be sure he's lying. But c'mon tell Ruth the truth!
Ruth Brown is far from the only older star to notice Copeland's talent. And to work with her. Others include, Dr. John, BB king, Carlos Santana, and Buddy Guy. Still she's very much an artist of her generation, working with songwriters to push blues lyrics into 21st century territory. For example, in the song "Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo," she took on the subject of date rape.
(singing) Just what I said wrong. Is any body's guess, But the bruise on my face. Was as blue as my dress.
And that's my way of helping the genre blossom and grow, by making it more contemporary with more contemporary lyrics.
And when you sing songs about a subject like date rape, do you hear from your fans?
Oh God. I know I'm doing the right thing.
(singing) Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo. Ain't gonna be your tattoo, end up faded and blue.
I remember standing in a, it's called the City Winery in Chicago. And this woman came up to me and she said, "I had been in an abusive relationship for many years. And we had just gotten into a physical altercation. I got in my car and she said, "I heard that song and I never went back to him again." She's crying. I'm crying. We're all a mess. I'm about to cry now just thinking about it. And then she introduced me to her new husband. And she said, "This is all because of you." And I was done. I was, like, oh my God. You know what I mean?
Her latest release, "America's Child," can be heard as a kind of plea for people of all stripes to respect each other.
(singing) Still free to be you and me.
Everybody is so obsessed with people's differences. It's what makes America, America.
You sing about a left wing liberal geek.
Married to a redneck freak, yeah.
And that is only one of the many characters who run through that song.
You sing about a transgender sugar daddy riding in a purple caddy.
Uh, there is really a lot of diversity in the country.
And you're singing about it.
I am. I am. Somebody's got to do it.
(singing) Listen here, Black and white. Black and white. Brown or tan. Brown or tan. Every woman. Every woman. Child and man. Child and man. Rich or poor. Rich or poor. Gay and straight. We ain't got time for hate.
And this song is, it's about my son. I have a little boy. And his name is Johnny. And he is amazing.
Named after your father?
Named after my father. I had him. And my life changed. I think that I always wanted to talk about issues and I wanted to help people, but never really felt like I wanted to change anything, or never felt like I could change anything.
(singing) We're all born. Then we die.
And when he was born, I felt like I wanted to, in some small way, try to change the world. And I still feel that way.
(singing) Some in mansions, and some in mud.
And do you run into traditionalists who think you're on territory you shouldn't be on, or no?
Oh, of course. Of course. There's always people that, you know, are not, that wish I would do, you know, remake Koko Taylor records for my entire life. But the one thing that Koko Taylor always told me is that she loved me because I'm doing my own thing.
(singing) We ain't got time for hate.
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Tom Casciato is an Emmy award-winning director, writer, producer and television executive who has created critically acclaimed nonfiction projects that have appeared on PBS, ABC, NBC, TBS, Showtime and more. He recently directed and produced two stories within episodes of the second season of the Emmy Award-winning climate-change series, "Years Of Living Dangerously." His 2013 film with Kathleen Hughes and Bill Moyers for Frontline series, "Two American Families," was called by Salon “... one of the best and most heartbreaking documentaries” of the year. Tom previously worked at WNET from 2006 until 2012, serving variously as director of News & Current Affairs and executive producer of two PBS series, "Wide Angle" and "Exposé: America’s Investigative Reports."
Connie Kargbo has been working in the media field since 2007 producing content for television, radio, and the web. As a field producer at PBS NewsHour Weekend, she is involved in all aspects of the news production process from pitching story ideas to organizing field shoots to scripting feature pieces. Before joining the weekend edition of PBS Newshour, Connie was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand where she trained Thai English teachers.
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